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Group says beaked whales at risk

Bottlenose whales upgraded to endangered

Canadian Press

30th November 30/02

OTTAWA - Notoriously friendly northern bottlenose whales are being threatened by underwater racket, says a scientific panel.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has upgraded the whale's status from threatened to the more serious endangered. The panel of animal, marine, plant and bird experts also added 11 other species to its at-risk list Friday, bringing the total to 415.

The lists ranks species as special concerns, threatened, endangered, extirpated (no longer found in Canada) and extinct.

About 130 of the whales, affectionately called dolphins on steroids, live in an Atlantic canyon off the coast of Nova Scotia.

"They look like an enormous Flipper," said Hal Whitehead, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University. The affable creatures, also known as beaked whales for their distinctive snouts, have been known to swim alongside boats. Like all whales, they are extremely sensitive to noise and rely on sonar for food gathering and social interaction., and while there's little scientific data on how noise pollution affects the deep-diving whales in Canada, their relatives have turned up dead elsewhere.

Several beaked whales that beached in 2000 in the Bahamas are believed to have suffered ear hemorrhages from nearby military sonar tests, and a U.S. judge halted scientific seismic activity in the Gulf of California in September when two beaked whales beached in the area.

Off the coast of Nova Scotia, the northern bottlenose lives in an area known as the Gully. It has been off limits to oil and gas exploration for the last five years as the federal government ponders making it a protected space, but it's surrounded by licensed areas where oil and gas companies are free to search for ocean-floor deposits using seismic exploration.

Boats trail long lines that blast air guns, sending sound waves that bounce back off the ocean floor. Seismic patterns are used to map geological formations under the surface, offering clues about what lies beneath.

Exploration activity is most intense in summer, with blasts going off every 10 seconds for hours at a time, Mr. Whitehead said. They can be heard thousands of kilometres away. That, along with ocean liners and other ship traffic makes the sea an increasingly noisy place.

"All this activity may be very harmful to a lot of animals, or it could have little effect," said Mr. Whitehead. "We don't know."
But the endangered listing for the northern bottlenose whale "is based on the science that's available," he explained.

It's believed the population of the whale has held steady over the last decade. Adults measure about seven metres in length and can weigh up to three tonnes.

Other species now considered endangered include the Lake Winnipeg Physa. snail and the Oregon forest snail, whose habitats are threatened by development.

The Puget Oregonian snail, once of southwestern British Columbia, can no longer be found in Canada, the panel reported. Also considered at risk are the polar bear, western toad and eastern Massasauga rattlesnake.

The proposed Species at Risk Act, which must still clear the Senate to become law, will offer only limited protections on federal lands, say environmental activists.

The Sierra Legal Defence Fund has urged senators to increase the number of species considered protected, clarify habitat protection for migratory birds, and outlaw the killing of at-risk animals wherever they're found.